Reality Television and the Cultivation of Body Image


Poor body image has been shown to be related to obesity, depression, and eating disorders (Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999). Poor body image may be cultivated by media images that depict female bodies as smaller than the norm (Hendriks, 2006). In the past, many of these images were created by casting and scripting news broadcasts and sitcoms. However, in today’s media market, “reality television” is becoming increasingly popular. Shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “The Amazing Race” are gaining audiences and airtime. For example, during the week of December 2, 2007, four out of the top 15 rated shows were reality television shows. (Nielsen Media Research, 2007).

Despite its growing popularity, previous media research has rarely pointed its lens at reality television. Cultivation theory suggests that individuals’ television viewing habits can influence and shape their perceptions of reality—their beliefs about how the world operates (Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Gerbner et al., 1979; 1986). Gerbner and Gross (1976) explained, “Television is a medium of the socialization of most people into standardized roles and behaviors. Its function is in a word, enculturation” (p. 175). Cultivation theory has been used to examine various effects of television viewing habits, such as individuals’ perceptions of violence and crime, older and younger people, minority populations, and socioeconomic statuses. Yet few researchers have used cultivation theory to investigate the relationship between television viewing and individuals’ perceptions of body image.

The goal of this study was to use cultivation as a framework to examine the effect of reality television on viewers’ perceived body image. Female college students (n=243) ages 18-24 (M = 18.97; SD = 1.14) viewed an hour-long episode of one of three reality TV shows (The Amazing Race, The Biggest Loser, Dr. 90210) after filling out measures of body image, self-esteem, and an index of cultivation. At post-test, viewers completed a post-test measure of body image. Results showed that although the reported body image of all three groups declined at post-test, the women who watched The Biggest Loser had less reduction in perceived body image as compared to the women in the other two groups [F(2,233) = 7.58, p < .01]. These results would seem to support those of Holstrom (2004), who found that media images of overweight women have a positive effect on the body image of female viewers.

As one would expect according to cultivation theory, women’s predisposition to cultivation had a significant negative relationship with body image at post-test (r = -.24; p < .01), whereas self-esteem demonstrated a positive relationship with body image (r = .18; p < .01). These results will be discussed within the framework of cultivation theory and directions for future studies will be suggested.